Emperor Extrator IV’s flagship, Invincible, arrived in orbit around Endragar along with 15 more warships of various shapes and sizes. As far as Abaden Lors knew, the captains of those ships were still more or less loyal to Extrator. At least, Lors hadn’t attempted to get them to join his defection. He couldn’t quite imagine anyone being truly loyal to Extrator anymore, not with the mess he’d made of the Empire in the past two years. But, there were always those who refused to think for themselves, who would blindly follow the Throne, no matter how incompetent its occupant was.
“Admiral Lors, incoming message from Invincible!” said the communications officer.
“Onscreen,” Lors commanded. He expected to see the Emperor’s face appear, but he was unpleasantly surprised to see the face of Jefmin Lakatai, the Master of the ISS. “What do you want, Lakatai?” he growled. He knew he was being disrespectful, but he didn’t much care. The Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armed Forces was at least theoretically the equal of the Master of the Imperial Secret Service, even if Extrator hadn’t been treating them that way lately.
“Oh, now is that the way to greet an old friend who comes bearing gifts?” Lakatai said with an oily smile.
“You are not, nor have you ever been, my friend,” Lors said coldly. “And I wouldn’t take a gift from you even if it was a block of pure chritonium.”
“You wound me,” Lakatai said, his oily smile deepening. “What have I ever done to you?”
“Don’t get me started,” Lors said with a stony scowl.
“I should think you’d be at least a little bit more respectful,” Lakatai said. “After all, I do hold your fate in my hands. One word from me in the Emperor’s ear, and you’ll be stripped of your rank and privileges and thrown in prison for the rest of your miserable days. And if this battle goes poorly, I think I might just have to say that one word.”
“You are the least of my worries right now, Lakatai,” Lors said dismissively. “Now, what is this nonsense about gifts?”
“I thought you didn’t want any gifts from me,” Lakatai replied, his devilish grin showing all of his teeth. Lors just rolled his eyes in response. “I mean these 15 lovely ships, of course. You see, you should be grateful to me. This force might just mean the difference between glorious victory and crushing defeat!”
“Aren’t you just the hero?” Lors retorted, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“You’d better believe it, old man,” Lakatai said with an angry smirk, “and if you don’t, I might just have you thrown in prison for the fun of it.”
“I’d like to see you try,” said Lors with a challenging glare. Lakatai stared at him with a black look, and then suddenly his face disappeared and was replaced with an image of Endragar. Lors took a deep breath and sank down into his seat. He didn’t know what had come over him, antagonizing Lakatai like that. Even though he would soon be defecting to Valador Mifalis and getting away from Lakatai’s poisonous influence, he hadn’t made his escape yet. Jefmin Lakatai still had the power to ruin everything.
“Five minutes until drop, Captain,” announced the navigation officer onboard Ranger. Captain Vynay Nonmar, Ranger‘s CO, nodded to him and turned to Colonel Lodimeur.
“This is it, Colonel,” she said blandly.
“It certainly is, Captain,” he replied, equally blandly. It was difficult to speak freely with twenty heavily armed Imperial marines standing behind them. Even though all command functions had been rerouted to the forward observation deck, Lodimeur and Nonmar still had to pretend that the ship was being commanded from the bridge, which meant that their presence on the bridge was necessary for now. It wouldn’t do much good to move the command functions to a different location on the ship if the marines figured out where that was.
“Drop in 5…4…3…2…1…now!” said the navigation officer, and the ship shuddered slightly as it dropped into subspace. Lodimeur nodded in satisfaction as he checked out the system status. Everything looked good. He turned to Nonmar and nodded to her. She nodded back, and pressed a button on her command console.
“Captain Nonmar, would you join me in the mess hall for a cup of tea?” Lodimeur asked.
“Of course, Colonel,” she replied. “Lieutenant Vydall, you have the bridge.” Lodimeur and Nonmar moved toward the exit, but their path was barred by a hulking marine with a scar across his left cheek.
“Excuse me, Colonel, Captain,” he said with an ugly stare, “shouldn’t you be staying on the bridge right now?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary, Sergeant,” Lodimeur replied. “We won’t arrive at Endragar for at least three hours. I think the Captain and I have time for a cup of tea.”
“Are you sure that drinking tea is all you two will be doing?” the marine growled.
“Listen to me, Sergeant,” Nonmar said, investing that word with all the scorn she could muster, “I am the Captain of this ship, and no one tells me where I can and can’t go on my own ship. You got that?” The marine just stared at her with an ugly scowl for several moments, and then he moved aside. Lodimeur and Nonmar stepped through the door and proceeded briskly down the corridor.
“I was afraid that would backfire for a second,” Nonmar confided with a relieved chuckle.
“Not me,” Lodimeur said somberly. “They’re still vaguely trying to give the illusion that they’re here for our protection. They’re not going to make their move until the battle with Redlamin is over.”
“I suppose not,” Nonmar replied, her expression hardening. “Is everything in place yet?”
“Should be,” Lodimeur said. “Once those marines realize that the bridge and CIC have been deactivated, it will be too late for them to do anything about it.”
“What about engineering?” Nonmar asked. “That’s the weak link in all of this.”
“All of the engine controls have been routed out as well,” Lodimeur said. “The only danger is if the marines down there decide they’d rather be martyrs instead of prisoners.”
“Let’s hope they choose the latter,” Nonmar said grimly. “I’m willing to give my life for the Presence, but I’d rather not do it today.”
“Agreed,” Lodimeur said, just as grim, and they walked down the corridor in silence.
To be continued…